Dr Katarzyna Kubiak
Director of IFS, Kjell Inge Bjerga, welcomed the participants and guests, stating that nuclear weapons are back on the agenda, asking whether the recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) published by the US is the answer to the threat from Russia. Senior Fellow at IFS, Dr Katarzyna Kubiak, then introduced the speakers at the seminar.
The role of nuclear weapons after the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review
The key note speaker for the seminar was former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, Ms Elaine Bunn, who spoke about NATO defence and deterrence after the NPR. Ms Bunn posited that nuclear weapons are again relevant, and that managing nuclear issues is no less challenging, perhaps even more challenging, now than during the Cold War. One reason for this being that there are now more nuclear powers, for example North Korea.
Ms Elaine Bunn
Ms Bunn proceeded to put the NPR in context, stating that all administrations conduct a major review of nuclear posture, and although she was no fan of the document, she would give her assessment of the recent one. Ms Bunn found that there is significant continuity in the document, as it reiterated from previous NPRs that the primary, not the sole role of nuclear weapons, is to deter a nuclear attack on the US and its allies. It continues programmes from the Obama administration to reconstitute nuclear platforms such as the Trident, and the policy that the US will only use nukes in extreme circumstances. Furthermore, the document restated the moratorium on nuclear testing.
In terms of change, according to Ms Bunn, the worsening security environment was addressed, and Russia, China, North Korea were central to the document. It also addressed lower yield weapons, such as nuclear tipped cruise missiles, as supplements to US nuclear forces. Although the authors of the document repeat the use of weapons in extreme circumstances only, the NPR defines what extreme circumstances are: non-nuclear attacks with catastrophic effects, such as massive cyber-attacks or attacks with biological weapons.
Ms Bunn then proceeded to as whether the NPR is good or bad. She mused that it reflects evolution from previous NPRs, rather than a revolution. It omitted several controversial statements from Trumps campaign, signals that the US is not ready to engage in a nuclear arms race, and that no increase in its nuclear arsenal will take place. It also reinforces extended nuclear deterrence, and does not endorse other countries getting weapons. In all, Ms Bunn stated, it could have been a lot worse.
Ms Bunn then proceeded to move beyond the NPR and onto the topic of deterrence in general, stating that there is an ongoing evolution of deterrence thinking. She maintained there is a widely held recognition that one needs to readjust nuclear arsenals to more diverse opponents and forces, and that there are three factors that challenges deterrence in general:
- First is the challenge of understanding potential adversaries. How do they think? What are their key objectives? Who influences decisions? How risk tolerant are they? What do they think about adversaries? This understanding requires expertise on these potential adversaries in the form of regional experts, as reducing ignorance as much as possible is important, according to Ms Bunn.
- The second challenge, according to Ms Bunn, is adapting the mix of capabilities relevant to deterring specific actions, by specific actors, in specific circumstances. This goes beyond nuclear capabilities, as it also concerns conventional capabilities, non-kinetic capabilities, and passive defences such as hardening of potential targets. Other means include diplomatic, economic, and legal measures.
- Lastly, Ms Bunn stressed the importance of taking your own messages, both words and actions, into account with the aim of mitigating misperceptions.
On the basis of these challenges, Ms Bunn stated that the US and its allies' view of deterrence is evolving continually.
Finishing off her talk, Ms Bunn addressed frequently recurring issues in arms control. She pointed out that it has not been decided how best to avoid using nuclear weapons, and there are two main camps on this issue. One holds that getting rid of nukes entirely is the right way to go, while the other camp maintains that deterring the use of them is the best. The problems with the former, Ms Bunn maintained, was that we cannot get rid of the fissile materials nor can we eradicate the knowledge on how to build the weapons. As for deterrence, there are several problems, but most acutely for NATO is the question of how to make extended deterrence credible?
Russian nuclear doctrine and the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review
The second speaker was Director of Research at IFS, Professor Katarzyna Zysk. Professor Zysk addressed the debate that the US Nuclear Posture Review has spawned in Western academic and policy circles regarding its assessment of Russia's military strategy. According to the NPR, Russia believes that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, could provide a coercive advantage over the US and its allies in crises and at lower levels of conflict. The assessment has been consequential as it has contributed to justify the introduction of additional capabilities to the US nuclear arsenal.
She found that some of key facts and nuances of the Russian military strategy have been either lost or misunderstood in the discussion. Russia's emphasis on 'defensive' doctrine and an increasing role of non-nuclear deterrence, including defensive and offensive strategic conventional weapons, not only does not exclude the limited use of nuclear weapons at some point in an armed conflict, professor Zysk argued; it actually foresees it.
Professor Zysk made subsequently four main points.
- Firstly, there is evidence of the so called 'escalate-to de-escalate' strategy, notwithstanding the ongoing discussion on semantics and on what the most appropriate name for the strategy should be. The Russian approach has been demonstrated in doctrinal documents, defence acquisition programmes and deployments, and operational pattern,
- Secondly, Professor Zysk argued that the relationship between nuclear and conventional weapons in Russian strategic thinking is not governed by a 'zero-sum game' logic. The increasingly capable Russian conventional forces provide more flexibility and a broader spectrum of options in escalation management, but they have not undermined the central role of nuclear weapons; rather, they have been integrated into a complementary system, where nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities amplify each other's effect in supporting deterrence, defence and coercion. Hence, while the Russian authorities declare to increasingly rely on conventional capabilities, they still regard the development of nuclear forces as a 'a top priority'.
- Thirdly, Professor Zysk pointed out that Russia's approach to escalation and de-escalation, including use of strategic conventional and non-strategic nuclear weapons is compatible with the priorities of the state armament programmes and deployments, which she subsequently presented.
- Lastly, Professor Zysk stated that the logic of the broadened and more flexible Russian approach to escalation and de-escalation is compatible with the emphasis the Russian General Staff places on the initial period of war, seen as key to the overall outcome of conflict. She concluded that whether Russia will use nuclear weapons and what would be the exact circumstances leading it to cross the nuclear threshold is anybody's guess. What is certain, however, is that Russia has developed a capability and capacity and systematically trained an employment of a limited nuclear option, should the political leadership decide to do so.
The future of the US missile defence
In his talk, Kenneth Todorov, Vice President of Missile Defense Solutions at Northrop Grumman, addressed the expectations for the yet-to-be published Missile Defense Review (MDR). Mr Todorov stressed the fact that it had been expanded from a "Ballistic Missile Defense Review", to a "Missile Defense Review." The change, he maintained, indicates that missile threats have diversified, which justifies a more general approach to the issue.
Mr Todorov expects the MDR to address a number of emerging technologies, such as space-based interceptors and sensors, and directed energy. Although current spending on missile defence is not in line with the MDR's priorities, Mr Todorov expects this to change in the near future.
Mr Kenneth Todorov
The consequences for NATO and other US allies, according to Mr Todorov, is that it opens up for more missile defence, and the need to consider the right mix of capabilities. An issue to consider in this regard is the offense-defence mix. Furthermore, Mr Todorov maintained that missile defence is not just strategic, but also a part of integrated air defence. He referenced Russia's A2/AD system, which is a thicket of capabilities in an overlapping and redundant system spanning from the tactical to the strategic level. Mr Todorov maintained that NATO should do the same, as it would afford the Alliance with a full range of missile defence capabilities that is currently lacking.
Technically, Mr Todorov argued for NATO's embrace of overlapping capabilities, and the need to think about how individual systems can work well together. He also asked what the passive missile defence systems NATO can use are. Finally, Mr Todorov cautioned that missile defence is not a shield.
The prospects for arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament
The last speaker of the day was Director of NATO WMD Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation Centre, Mr William Alberque, who addressed the future prospects for arms control. Mr Albeurque began by asserting that the current arms control environment is getting worse, as more and more countries turn a blind eye towards arms control, although it is not as bad as during the height of the Cold War.
He continued by stating that arms control only exists in a binary relationship between two adversaries, and that it is a tool of national security policy. The core of arms control, he maintained, is trust, as the adversaries need to be able to verify what the other party does.
In order to get arms control, he asserted, deterrence is key. It allows dialogue to occur, and this is as true today as it was during the Cold War. He argued that in order to enable dialogue and force Russia to the negotiation table, NATO needs to strengthen deterrence. In other words, NATO needs to set the conditions for negotiations to occur. Finally, Mr Alberque cautioned that arms control has to fit with the national interest of everyone. Russia is currently challenging the global rules based order. Yet he hopes that Moscow can see that the rules based system is in its own interest.
After the talks, the four speakers took questions from the audience. These questions touched on a number of topics, among them were: who will take on the leadership for disarmament; what has actually changed from Cold War deterrence; how NATO can deal with the integrated air-and-missile defence developed by Russia, and fears of abandonment in Europe versus fears of entrapment in the US.
Summary written by Amund Lundesgaard